Does Size Matter in Sustainable Food?
When asked whether there is a correlation between the size of a farm and whether it sustainably produces food, food experts say it all comes down to management.
We hear about farmers markets, "locally grown" foods, "family farmers" and "small farms" - all of which are pretty much accepted by consumers as positive parts of the food system. Then terms like "agribusiness," "factory farms," "corporate farmers" and "big ag" are mentioned and the conversation goes negative pretty quickly. When we got a question from http://www.fooddialogues.com/, we were curious to learn more.
Peter Davies, BVSC, PhD - University of Minnesota Professor of Animal Science
H. Scott Hurd, PhD – Iowa State University Associate Professor of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine
John O'Sullivan, PhD - North Carolina State University Adjunct Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology and Farm Management & NC Cooperative Extension Program Marketing Specialist for the North Carolina Sustainable Agriculture Research and Agriculture Program.
Q: I’ve heard some folks criticize “Big Ag.” Is there a correlation between farm size and sustainably-produced food?
"First, we’ll have to answer the question, 'What is sustainably-produced food?' From the farmer perspective – the business people – they will say that financial sustainability is a priority. If you’re producing a commodity, there’s a lot of pressure on economic sustainability and certainly economies of scale exist. I think one of the reasons we have a lot of large farms now are the benefits of large-scale farming: productivity, specialization of labor, etc. Federal Government studies have shown that productivity is higher on larger farms. It’s harder for a “small farm” (that phrase needs to be defined too) to be as economically sustainable in a commodity industry. Small farms typically have a higher production cost and may need to find markets that reward them for their differentiated production process/practices (antibiotic-free, organic, etc.). Sustainability, in this light, all comes down to the management (not the size) of the enterprise and how it’s being produced and marketed.
"If the term 'sustainability' refers to ecosystem health/environmental issues, then this is more complex. One of the things people don’t realize is that the pig population of the United States is about the same as it was 100 years ago, but our meat production has increased about four-fold. So we have four times more meat from the same number of pigs. We used to have a very large number of small farms contributing to the supply and now, many of those smaller enterprises don’t exist, so there was obviously a sustainability issue. When we focus purely on manure, we have to realize that our pig population isn’t larger than it was, so we don’t have more manure total. But what we do have is higher concentration in different areas of the country, so we need to deal with it differently than we did 100 years ago. We need to deal with local, point-source management of manure. We now have more regulation than we used to. Each area of the country will differ, based on the ecosystem you’re in, with how it’s managed. In MN, we have a very sustainable model for manure management for fertilizing crop land. In fact manure has great value to farmers. I was on a family farm this past year that was producing about 40,000 hogs a year for market, but they were actually purchasing manure because their own animals didn’t produce enough manure for the crops they were growing. So, in areas where you have crop production and need fertilizer, there is a very sustainable model. In areas where there isn’t as intense crop production, then you have to deal with an abundance of manure, and they have plans to manage that. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues that come up – like weather events or mis-management – but with the existing regulations, an understanding of responsible management and systems put into place, we’ve come a long way on both economic and environmental sustainability."
"That’s a very important question. I love “small ag,” but if sustainability means “to continue to do what we do without negatively impacting future generations,” then it implies “efficiency.” Efficiency means “consolidation” or “concentration” or what some will call “big ag.” The group whose job it is to figure out how to feed the world, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has written about that concept. They say that sustainability means consolidation. With that, I’d say yes, there is a correlation."
"No, I don’t think there is a correlation. I think we really do need to look at the balance of resources – human resources, energy, water, etc. – for a true “cost benefit” assessment of agricultural production systems, and actually move toward sustainably-produced food. We need a lot of good research and robust discussion as we consider questions which are much more complex than 'big or small.'
"We are at a point of transition and change with agriculture. While we have achieved some very great production successes in the past fifty years, these have come with some great costs. These seem to suggest that the past successes cannot continue. We have done some tremendous things with our production systems. And if we look at the demographics of our global society and answer the question going forward on a global scale, the needs are going to increase and if we continue to rely uniquely on “big ag,” those problems are going to increase. Yet I do think big agriculture will continue to grow globally as we have only to look, for example, to Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. There, huge transformations are occurring with large-scale agriculture. There are some challenges though, related to fuel, energy and water use. The changes will occur because of population movement, disposable income and the retail/distribution world being created by the global information system - not because it makes agricultural economic sense.
"I am very happy to report that, in North Carolina, we have all sorts of agriculture. We are all in this discussion together and we need to improve the consumer perspective on things with good information so that they can make wise choices based in the reality of agriculture. I believe that, no matter the size, people should be encouraged to visit farms near them – “big” or “small” or somewhere in between. Consumers should make informed decisions about food and food value so that they and their families live healthy lives.
"In addition, as I look back at history and the Irish potato famine, I wonder about the robustness of the big system and its production focus - or perhaps the place to start is the distribution system where there is so much waste and loss. While I think it will move forward with big investment and extraordinary technological development, I worry about production pressures that seem to push toward the reduction in biodiversity and the contradiction between the retail demanded shelf quality standards and natural bio-systems. So I hope that there are alternative models that can be considered since the big system, when it works well, seems robust, but may not serve us well in other circumstances. But all in all, agriculture, as a whole, is alive and well – in fact, I don’t think in terms of “big ag” or “small ag” – we’re all in this together."
What do you think? Is there a correlation between the size of a farming operation and how sustainable it is?